Employers are facing difficulties with tightening immigration policy while also dealing with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, some are already expanding their presence in other countries to meet hiring needs and many others may follow, according to a recent study.
President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in April temporarily prohibiting foreign workers from obtaining permanent residency through the green card process, along with other immigration restrictions. The action drew skepticism and fear from employment lawyers and industry trade groups regarding domestic employers’ ability to recruit foreign talent.
"The President's decision to suspend certain green card applications for 60 days could not come at a worse time," Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, said in an April 23 statement. "The White House should also refrain from pursuing future action to restrict access to temporary guest worker programs."
Many who enter the U.S. on a work visa hope to eventually obtain permanent residency. Losing that opportunity creates greater anxiety, one that is heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. The Executive Order also prohibited green card holders from sponsoring a spouse or child for permanent residency.
"In terms of foreign nationals, these are very perilous times," Dick Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, a legal technology solution for managing the immigration process, told HR Dive in an interview.
Burke pointed out that foreign workers on visas cannot be furloughed or have their salaries reduced. As a result, they could be more likely to be part of layoffs, and they "are afraid that because they can't offer the same flexibility as a native-born citizen can [...] they feel a bit more susceptible."
For this segment of the workforce, which represents 17% of U.S. workers, according to the American Immigration Council, this vulnerability can have detrimental effects on mental health and productivity. Foreign STEM graduates, as well, are having challenges navigating the Trump Administration’s immigration policy and the added impact of the pandemic to businesses. Because many have had job offers rescinded, their ability to stay in the country is in jeopardy.
These workers are, in many instances, thousands of miles away from their families during a global public health crisis and on the front lines of the country's response. Recent research from the New American Economy Research Fund found immigrants to be well-represented among essential businesses, particularly healthcare, food service and manufacturing.
"The most sophisticated [HR teams] are the ones who realize that all the gifts that foreign nationals bring in terms of diversity of experience and skill set," Burke said. "You’ve got to be empathic to all that laundry list of anxiety."
Burke said he believes it is important to also give members of this group "a seat at the table" to ensure representation in company decisions, particularly during these challenging times.
As the Trump administration continues to tighten immigration pathways, employers are assigning more tech talent to non-U.S. offices and even expanding into new geographies. In an Envoy survey of U.S.-based employers that recruit internationally, 48% said "placing or hiring high-skilled talent for whom they were unable to secure work authorization in the U.S. was the primary driver for their outbound immigration assignments." The report added that, "this was the most frequently cited reason."
Canada, in particular, is becoming a popular outpost. Burke named Vancouver and Toronto as the fastest-growing destinations and the Envoy study found that 51% of employers are "considering Canada for their company’s expansion, up from 38% the previous year."
"A lot of companies are saying, 'we get a great educated workforce up there [...] we've got less issues with time zones than we do with other continents. We've got geographic proximity. We've got cultural homogeneity' in many regards," Burke said.
While an expansion into Canada may work for some companies, even those who can afford to expand, especially right now, will face many challenges including staffing, local labor laws, office setups, business structure for entry and more, Burke noted. Tighter immigration may lead to even larger shifts in workforce allocation between the U.S. and other countries but for now employers, are waiting to make any major moves.
"What we hear anecdotally is they also are waiting to do anything [too] permanent until they see the results of the November election," Burke said, when the direction of immigration policy may could return to historic norms of previous presidents.